Steve-O Talks About Stand-Up, Longing For Attention, And The Voices In His Head

MTV’s early 2000s mega-hit Jackass was either something you loved or hated. It was hard to be indifferent. If you were into it, as I was, you eventually came to know its personalities: Johnny Knoxville, the charming ringleader; Bam Margera, the punk rock jester; and Steve-O. Steve-O was the absolute wildcard. If you watch Jackass closely, you’ll see that he shows up in a lot of solo sketches — presumably because the show’s other stars didn’t want to put fish hooks through their cheeks or drink beer through their asses.

The man just always seemed to find a way to take things the the furthest possible level, and when you’re talking about the Jackass crew, that’s really saying something. Between the show, its spinoffs, and the Jackass movies, Steve-O got famous (something he’s open about longing for). But that fame wasn’t without its troubles. He developed the sort of drug problem that makes drug abuse seem the furthest thing from glamorous (all documented in 2009’s Steve-O: Demise and Rise).

After entering rehab and going vegan, Steve-O’s career was ready to change directions too. He started to perform stand-up, taking it seriously and working to develop his craft. A month ago, his first stand-up special, Guilty As Charged, hit Showtime. Last week, it launched on Vimeo. The special acts as a sort of bridge between his old persona and his new path. He smashes cans against his head, squeeze lemons into his eyes, and gets choked out by an MMA fighter all in the first five minutes. But those stunts feel like preamble — Steve-O’s chance to show people right away “I’ve changed, but not too much.” With all of this out of his system, he goes on to perform a carefully crafted storytelling-driven set. Whether you think it’s funny or not, it’s obvious that Steve-O cares about what he’s doing.

Then, at the tail end of the special, when you least expect it, he has someone taze him with 50,000 volts.

Last month, I sat down with Steve-O at Cafe Gratitude in Hollywood. The comedian also brought his dad Ted Glover. Glover is a retired business executive who is as buttoned-up as his son is laid back. The two spoke candidly with me about Steve-O’s past (from nutsack-stapling to drug abuse) and his future. The resulting conversation revealed the thoughtful man behind the half-crazed persona — someone who wants to be liked, accepted, and grow… all while never taking himself too seriously.

This transition from Jackass to stand-up seems pretty big. Do you feel like you’ve pivoted, or is this just kind of like a different act of the same show?

Steve-O: I’ve been working on pivoting. I guess motivation-wise it’s not a pivot at all it’s just a natural thing for an attention whore. You know? My nature is attention-seeking, so whether I’m doing stunts or doing stand-up, it’s all the same animal. With that said, there’s some pivoting going on too. It wasn’t even really intentional. When I first started doing stand-up I thought, “Oh, yeah. This would be great to do.” I didn’t even really have it in my mind like, “Oh, well I’m going to be too old to do stunts.” It was just about doing more stuff. Now I’m very much aware of the fact that I’m in my forties…

Is there a point where your body kind of says, “Alright. You might want to chill on putting fish hooks through your cheek”?

Steve-O: I’ve been fortunate because I haven’t had really debilitating injuries. I’ve also taken reasonably good care of myself for eight years now. I think that physically my body is fully capable of all kinds of more shenanigans, but I’m starting to develop a sense that the stunt stuff… it’s not necessarily my body needing a break as much as just sort of the window of time where it’s kind of… I don’t know. I’m doing a bad job explaining this, but the best way to put it is that I remember being in Tampa not long ago, maybe last year, and this radio DJ down there, Mike Calta, he said when he went to the theater to see Jackass 3D that he was scared for us as an ensemble that it would’ve reached the point where it had become sad to watch us doing that kind of stuff. He said he was very relieved to find that in fact we were still getting away with it.

I think that now, six years later, that is a concern. I think that if we were to get together and make another Jackass movie that would be very much a concern. I brought that up in a group e-mail between the cast. See, some of the guys are sort of less busy than other guys, and kind of feeling really desperate to get another movie going. Every once in a while an e-mail will be sent to everybody from one of the guys in the cast saying, “Come on! Come on! Let’s make a movie. Let’s make a movie.” On the most recent one I articulated to them what the guy said in Tampa and I said, “Hey, I love working with you guys. We’re all great friends. It’s something really special that we have, but with that said, as excited as I am to work with you guys, if we’re going to another project we need to figure out a way to get out in front of it and acknowledge we’re old. Because we’re old.”

There’s got to be a way to do that in a way that’s still funny. But for us to just carry on and put out a fourth Jackass movie at this point without acknowledging that in some way, I think could be perceived as sad. The funniest response to that e-mail came from Preston Lacy, who mocked up a Jackass poster, but it said in the Jackass font Sadass.

I watched Demise & Rise last night. It was a tough watch, man. 

Ted: Tough for you? Think of what it was for me.

Yeah, I can only imagine. Looking back on that special, how do you feel about it?

Steve-O: It’s basically a downward spiral special. I was nervous because there’s been a lot of celebrities who have kind of put their recovery from substance abuse issues into the media. It’s almost been kind of a curse, I think. The more you kind of grandstand about it, “Hey, look at me. I’m sober now. I’m all better,” it creates a dynamic that sets you up for failure.

You’ve given people a template to model their recovery on, which I think is very cool. My impression is that you’re the sort of famous where someone says, “Oh, I can meet that dude. That guy might think I was cool enough to hang out with.” You’re accessible. So the idea of putting addiction out there when you’re that guy, feels important.

Steve-O: I think that’s a valid observation. I’m definitely an approachable, relatable guy, on a lot of levels anyway. I think with that mentality, I look at a documentary about my recovery, and I don’t think about it as a curse or a blessing in any way. It’s just a television show — it’s not going to keep people sober or cause them to relapse. At this point it’s really pretty beyond mystery what does and doesn’t help people stay sober. You’re either doing those things or you’re not, and whether you have a TV show about it is beside the point.

I think the other thing that it really shone a light on is how much documentation has been a part of your life.

Steve-O: Right. That’s almost as scary as the substances themselves.

Is that still as dramatically a part of your existence or not quite the same?

Steve-O: I really put a lot of work into establishing some separation between Steve-O persona and Steve Glover the person. As much progress as I’ve made, there’s a lot of grey area there, man. Those lines get super-blurred. When you don’t want your identity to be entirely tied up in the persona, but when your livelihood is… The lines get blurred.

This probably doesn’t happen as much anymore, but I’d imagine people probably feel like they could just walk up to you and go, “All right, do some crazy shit. Just do something insane.”

Steve-O: What I get the most is, “Hey, man. Can I get you to kick me in the balls?” People beg me to kick them in the balls. It’s really a phenomenon.

I followed your anti-Sea World stunt and know that you’re a vegan. Can you talk about how conservation became a cause for you?

Steve-O: I am passionate about conservation. It’s been kind of a gradual … My early days when I was working in a circus, kind of a shitty circus that didn’t travel, and it lived at the world’s largest flea market/drive-in movie theater in south Florida. They had three elephants and a tiger. I felt sad for those animals, particularly for the tiger. The tiger’s life was going back and forth between the box that they used for the magic act and the box that they stored him in, and neither box was significantly longer than the length of the tiger itself. It was a really sad thing.

After Jackass had been out for a while I was doing some interview and kind of going on a rant about the tiger thing and that inspired PETA to get a hold of me. They said, “We loved what you said about the animals in the circus. Can we get you to say that for us?” My response was, “I’m not about to turn down an opportunity to garner attention for myself.” I just thought it was a [media] opportunity, which clearly I approached my Sea World stunts as. You know?

Let me be an attention whore and get myself in the headlines, and at the same time bring attention to a cause I believe in. I’ve never tried to pretend that I wasn’t out to be an attention whore myself.

You’ve said that a couple times, “attention whore.” I feel like most people in Hollywood wouldn’t cop to that quite so clearly, and you’re really open about it. Are you saying that it feeds something in you? Like it feels good, or there’s an agenda, or it gets you paid better, or…

Steve-O: It’s been there since I was a kid. Maybe my dad would have some insight. I moved around a lot. Growing up I lived in five different countries. Dad was a super-successful business man with not a lot of free time on his hands, and we traveled a lot. You don’t have to be much of a psychotherapist seeing how an issue could develop. That coupled with the alcoholism in my family, and whatever… I’m happy to sort of call it the way it is. You know? Look, I think most people’s favorite topic of conversations is themselves. Very few people want to admit that. I went and got myself tattooed over my whole back because I think it’s funny to cop to it.

It’s nice to call out the hypocrisy and be able to be in on the joke. I think Jackass always did a good job with that, and I think you’re doing a good job with that. Of being like, “Oh, I get the joke of, ‘Oh, this guy wants attention.’ Let me show you how much I get it.”

Steve-O: And now stand-up is part of that. The broken little boy that needs affection and approval is seeking that, and then the stand-up, everything that you’re saying, which is really pretty eloquent. Is it an emotional need? Is it just a function of getting paid better? Professionally, emotionally, I enjoy it too. It challenges me. I want to have a career, and I have sort of a void to fill. Paying the bills by filling a void is working for me at this point. The task at hand, of course, is to validate myself. To not need external… the affection and attention of masses of people I don’t even know isn’t the healthiest way to go about seeking…

It’s kind of a different drug.

Steve-O: Sure. I’ve got a lot more work to do in the way of really separating myself from the persona, but in the meantime, I’m good at what I do.

It’s healthy.

Steve-O: It’s healthier. I’m good at it. A lot of people are inclined to try to crap on me for going into stand-up when I’m not known for being in stand-up, but it really doesn’t matter. The nature of my life and my career has been so outrageous that it’s no mystery that I have a wealth of material to draw on that’s going to be interesting, outrageous, hilarious, shocking. I’ve got a fan base built in that is understood, and most importantly I care about it.

A lot of people have fizzled out in one area of their career and tried to go into stand-up, and not lasted because they weren’t passionate. They didn’t do a good job. I think I can confidently, comfortably, and without being too much of a douche say that I’m doing a great job at what I’m doing with the stand-up. I’m really comfortable about it.

It’s kind of more recent that I’ve been confidently owning the fact that I’ve been doing stand-up comedy. I’ve been more, over the last five years, kind of sneaking around, sort of honing my craft a little bit, and bringing people to the comedy clubs who are fans of Jackass or are just interested in seeing Steve-O. At this point, where I’m at now, the pivot is I’m pivoting towards really owning it with confidence, like “Watch my special.”

Like, “Even if you specifically didn’t like me before, give me a shot”?

Steve-O: Sure. I’m no longer interested in being intimidated by the idea of not being accepted as a stand-up comedian because it’s too late, I am one. The greatest irony of the attention whore is that they’re a very sensitive person. Still this desire to make people laugh and enjoy themselves is pretty universal. But the people who don’t think I should be able to do stand up are out there.

Ted: Are they really?

Steve-O: Al Madrigal. We were performing back to back at a comedy club, and he just took to the stage and just openly attacked me in a way that wasn’t even funny or even designed to get laughs. He just went on this crazy venomous rant about me. It had no jokes in it. Then he went on to devote a bit in his next comedy special to this vendetta for Steve-O. I heard about that. I never saw it… So maybe it wasn’t in the special, but I know it was part of the show. It was a regular part of the show that he toured with to bash me for doing stand-up.

Ted: You’ve got a tour that has toured for five-and-a-half years across 18 different countries. How in the world could anybody rationally question that? Those weirdos are such a minority, they can’t be allowed to influence your creative nature. They’re like the trash in the street. That’s just jealousy and insecurity. Those are the people you feel sorry for rather than want to attack.

Steve-O: Easy for dad to say. Dad’s not a creative guy. He’s not as sensitive. Going back to the point that the attention whore… Because I remember being an attention whore, really a troubled attention whore from the youngest age, but when it was my turn to get up in front of the class to give some kind of a presentation I was trembling, my voice was shaking. It’s ironic to crave attention so much, but to be so sensitive. It’s like I want attention, but I’m terrified of getting negative attention.

I think one of the things that’s cool to look at in retrospect is you’ve talked about this idea that while the attention whore side has driven you, the drugs and alcohol really didn’t. They almost feel like they were kind of a side note to the crazy shit that you did and that you probably would’ve done it all sober too.

Steve-O: To say I was driven by any kinds substance abuse, no. Everything I was driven by was in spite of all that. That was like a ball and chain that was dragging along with me. When I got sober and we started filming Jackass 3D everybody wanted to know, “How do you do the stunts sober?” The answer was I didn’t do it because I under the influence of anything. I did it because I’m an attention whore. Take away the drugs and alcohol, and I’m a sober attention whore.

Ted: I wonder if you would’ve been an attention whore if you weren’t going into a new school every two, two and a half years.

How did the veganism come about?

Steve-O: As my drug abuse got out of control, it came to the point where I was hearing all the voices and having all the hallucinations. I felt — and I still feel to this day — sort of privy to some extra-dimensional shit, like some spirit action. What all was going on, I don’t necessarily know, but I feel on some level that the drugs and alcohol can start to erode barriers between dimensions somehow. I don’t know. It’s a weird thing, and I don’t let it get in the way of how I live, but I became really preoccupied with the idea of the spirit world.

I took to researching it, albeit, with piles of drugs all around me, but researching the spirit world. I came across this guy who was a spiritual guru in India. One line just jumped out at me. He said, “How can you expect to be saved if you eat meat?” I think most people can agree that the human condition is something we’re trapped in with the agenda of escaping somehow through salvation, or ascension, or whatever the case may be; whatever it is heaven, salvation, nirvana, or whatever, we seem to be on an evolutionary mission to get the fuck out of this predicament that we’re in. So to hear this guy say, “How can you expect to be saved when you eat meat,” it just clicked. It made sense to me. When I saw that I just stopped. I kept eating fish because I reasoned that since Jesus fed people with fish that has to be okay.

So you were making a spiritual choice…

Steve-O: Oh, I thought I was going to be sacrificing my health for this spiritual choice, and at the time that was okay with me. As it played out, I wound up getting sober shortly thereafter, and when I would go to Burger King and choose a veggie burger instead of a Whopper, I felt good about myself. The reward in feeling good about myself for choosing the veggie burger outweighed the sacrifice I made for forgoing the Whopper, which is the more delicious burger. It’s the better sandwich. If you’re not worried about anybody but yourself the Whopper is the better sandwich.

Then when I was in rehab and recovery the talk about building self-esteem through estimable acts. Sort of repairing the damage of the mistakes that we’ve made through doing the opposite of making mistakes. When I left rehab and I went into my little halfway house, I had this shitty, little, disgusting bed with a disgusting pillow I was like, “You know what? I’m going to buy a new pillow. I’m going to buy myself a new pillow.” I went to Target, and I was in the pillow section, and some pillows had feathers and some didn’t. I thought, “Hmm.” I picked up the phone and I called that same woman from PETA who now works for the Humane Society. I called her up and I said, “Are feathers in pillows cruel?” She said, “You bet they are.” She said, “They’re so cruel.” She said, “They rip these feathers out of the birds while they’re still alive so that they can grow more feathers.” It’s just terrible. I made the call that day to skip the feathered pillow. That’s just sort of the trajectory of my spiritual sort of vegan path. I maintain to this day that the reward I get from feeling that I’m doing the right thing and feeling good about that outweighs the sacrifice I made for passing up the more unhealthy and egregiously cruel meal options.

Ted: Could it be the hallucinations you had during those dark times that led you on this constructive path?

Steve-O: My lawyer, who really goes above and beyond the call of duty for a lawyer, specifically advised me to go ahead and shut the fuck up about all that in interviews.

“Don’t talk about the great insights you got while on drugs please.”

Steve-O: Yeah. You’re not going to gain anything… No one’s going to go, “I’m going to take him more seriously now. I was just about to write this guy off, but when he talks about the voices he heard in his head I decided to plug back in.” Nobody wants to hear that.

Ted: I don’t agree with that. I think that whole discussion provides a completely different dimension of you that a lot of people are going to find interesting that otherwise might be less interested in you.

Steve-O: You know what? That’s great if it does. But I can safely say that when I talk about hearing voices on drugs there’s absolutely no agenda. My conviction, which is my resignation, was that I was going to fail in life, ultimately. I never expected to be successful with the video thing. I thought I would struggle. I established at an early age that I was unwilling to do the work to get through college. I just couldn’t go to classes. I just couldn’t do it. I’ve never been able to do what I don’t want to do.

Work and school were real problems for me. I couldn’t keep a job and I could not stand school, so that left me feeling pretty ill-equipped to make it in the real world. It was sort of a dream, like, “Oh, I want to be this famous, crazy guy.” I think I can say it was more tied to a mortality complex. It’s like, “Okay, I’m going to fail in life. I’m going to die young having sort of failed, and I’m not okay with my mortality.” The video camera presented to me a way to have a legacy. I felt the videos could play beyond my years. If I died I would still sort of be alive. I could live forever.

You’re confronting our mortality too because you’re doing crazy shit.

Steve-O: I was so angry at death. “Take this, death.” Just trying to make fun of it. I was doing pretty dangerous stuff, but way more than it appeared on the surface, I had skills for that. From really small things I built my way up to where by the time I present it I didn’t show any of the practice or the training, so it really seemed like, “Wow, this guy’s nuts. He’s going to die.” Of course, wild animals, venomous reptiles, and such… There were a lot of crazy things, but I was a lot more calculated than people thought. I’ve been a lot more calculated and I remain that way then it ever appeared on the surface.

I was angry at death and I wanted to mock it. That was part of it, but those early years I was just packing a message into a bottle. I wanted to be the van Gogh of the video camera. A big deal after he died. That was what I was shooting for. I just wanted to matter. I wanted to matter forever, and I developed a real pride and felt really good about it.

Most people do not like their jobs. They just don’t. Most people don’t like their spouses. Most people don’t enjoy their day, and it’s a great service that I would provide to improve somebody’s day. I coined the term for my profession, distraction therapy. I’m not going to make anybody’s problems go away permanently. I’m not going to solve anything, but by the virtue of distracting people from their problems I have improve their lives. For that I’m fiercely proud and fiercely fulfilled, and I feel important.

Down the road, as we talked about before, that whole, “I’m important because I distracted you from the problems,” there’s a lot of self-importance in that. There’s a lot of dangerous identification with the persona of Steve-O that’s just short of railroading me into a miserable existence later. Now I’m kind of back-peddling on that, and trying to rearrange my identity, my motivation, and my fulfillment in this existence. I guess a lot of the things we’re talking about is serving to do that.

Guilty as Charged is available for rent on Vimeo.